With a little paint and a lot of love, Instagram’s @Cyguy83 designs incredibly lifelike dolls.
Cyrus Bronock’s day starts just like anyone’s might: He rises early, brews some coffee, gets dressed, gives his still-sleeping husband a quick kiss on the forehead — Kamden is a college professor — and then it’s off to work. But here’s where his day diverges from the average nine-to-fiver’s. Bronock, known to his fans as Cyguy83, is a repaint artist who specializes in lifelike dolls. Specifically, he takes prefab 11.5-inch fashion and character dolls, strips off their assembly-line paint, then lovingly re-creates them into astonishingly accurate one-of-a-kind representations of celebrity actors and musicians in some of their most iconic incarnations.
Bronock starts work in his second-floor studio just as the sun is coming up. “I wake up super early because I’m usually excited about the doll I’m creating at the moment,” he told Crixeo. The 20-by-20-feet studio is where his imagination takes flight. There is an entire wall of cube shelves filled with fabric organized by color. Depending on where he is on a project, he might start with some online research for photos of his subjects, or he might sculpt an original head for a new doll to be sure everything is just right. Some days start with a photo shoot for a completed doll ready to be shipped. Bronock arranges the doll in a shadowbox in front of a printed background and carefully sets the lights so each shot comes out perfectly.
Bronock’s creations are so realistic that the only thing keeping these lifelike dolls out of “the uncanny valley” is the fact that most of them are less than a foot tall. “The uncanny valley” is a term used to describe the phenomenon that occurs when a life-sized human figure, usually a humanoid robot, so closely resembles an actual human that the viewer feels uneasy or even repulsed.
But don’t worry! There’s no risk of repulsion here, just amazement at the perfection of these miniature marvels.
Dolls in general have a long and interesting history. They offer unique reflections of culture in specific places and times. Ancient Egypt had paddle dolls and Greece had an early sort of jointed doll, examples of which have been found dating as far back as 2000 B.C. Dolls were made from clay, ivory, corn husks, rags, wood or bone and were used in every way imaginable: from simple playthings to fertility symbols, messengers to the gods, and educational tools.
Bronock says only recently have dolls been considered to belong solely in the realm of children and women, because of their association with “femininity or childishness, which society finds inferior or threatening.” Happily, that mind-set is changing. “I see people being more comfortable to think and express themselves in a way that is more representative of their unique interests and experience. People should always feel free to do things that bring them joy.”
Remarkable attention and care go into each of Bronock’s lifelike dolls. With his exquisite attention to detail, each doll takes an average of six to eight weeks to produce from commission to completion. Most of Bronock’s current projects are commissions, he says, but when he has time he creates work that’s just for him.
What’s special about many of Bronock’s dolls is that he doesn’t always rely on repaints. When he’s trying to achieve a specific look from a certain time or place, he’ll create custom heads. “Sometimes I have to do sculpting with Sculpey clay to get the best likeness, then create a master mold,” he said. “I don’t put boundaries on what needs to be done to get the best feel and likeness to the subject. I feel like if I didn’t do everything possible, I would be doing a disservice to my clients.” He estimates he’s created more than 100 molds. He also cuts and styles each doll’s hair, sometimes removing and altogether rerooting the hair. He achieves some styles, such as ringlets, using straws as curlers, and he uses a bit of foil to hold a hairstyle in place until it’s set.
Of the many lifelike dolls Bronock has created, he has a few particular favorites: “I really loved the Hocus Pocus Sanderson Sisters dolls and the Princess Leia doll I made. As a huge Star Wars fan, it was difficult to part with that one.” Indeed, a close examination of the detail on the Sanderson Sisters dolls shows the care that goes into each piece, from the braid-adorned princess seams on Sarah’s [Sara Jessica Parker] bodice, to Mary’s [Kathy Najimy] twisty, purple-streaked hairstyle, to the beautifully intricate hand-painted gold pattern on Winifred’s [Bette Midler] cape. Bronock also has some favorite celebrities he’s created again and again from different times and incarnations of their careers. One person whose likeness shows up often is Madonna, and it’s clear Bronock is a fan. You can trace the trajectory Madonna’s entire career by simply scrolling through his Instagram page. There are looks from Madonna’s “Lucky Star,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” and “True Blue” videos, to name a few.
If all this sounds like a lot of work, you’re right. Bronock admits he’s almost always working in one way or another. He sews every item of clothing by hand and obsesses over every detail. “Finding the right materials can often be quite an adventure. I will go to fabric stores, craft stores, thrift shops, etc. You never know where the journey to find the perfect element will take you. Just the other day I purchased an umbrella that caught my eye because its casing was exactly what I needed for a doll garment.”
For Bronock creativity is as much a necessity of life as eating or sleeping. His mother, a gifted watercolor artist, instilled this philosophy in him. He and his sisters were homeschooled in a small Louisiana town, and the combination of isolation and his mother’s creative encouragement created the perfect crucible in which his artistic gifts were forged. “When you have all of that free time on your hands, you really have to rely on your imagination and creativity to keep you occupied,” Bronock explained. “My childhood was a unique landscape that played a large part in making me the person I am today. I think that many artists often have unusual, and even difficult, periods in their life that spark them to become good at what they do.”
During his youth, Bronock developed many of the techniques he still uses to create his lifelike dolls. Growing up, he was a huge fan of any and every kind of doll, from Barbies to celebrity dolls to action figures from Star Trek, Star Wars and Marvel. Basically, if it had two legs and was plastic, he was into it. He and his sister used these dolls as part of their ongoing creative playtime, making intricate dioramas and even customizing and creating entirely new characters.
Bronock has never taken a class on doll-making, repainting or even costuming. His dolls are all the product of knowledge he gained from years and years of experimentation. His dedication to his art is evident in the finished pieces. “I’m not afraid to try new things,” Bronock said. “Rather, I find it exciting. If I fail at something, I will examine why and then try again until I get it right. I came up with many of the techniques I use for creating these dolls through trial and error.”
The only help Bronock gets with his work is from his husband, who takes care of the bookkeeping. Prices for custom pieces range from $850 to $1500, depending on the amount of work involved. Customers who purchase Bronock’s lifelike dolls vary. “Some are doll collectors, one-sixth figure collectors, or fans of a particular celebrity.” In fact, several celebrities own dolls Bronock has made for them in their own likeness. He dreams about doing a show at some point, but commission work keeps him so busy he hasn’t had time to build up a personal collection large enough for a show. Happily, he did get to keep a few of his creations, including the cake toppers for his own wedding cake.